I know you’re not supposed to touch the art in galleries, but during the opening at Wendy Cooper last Friday night I couldn’t help myself. Standing in front of an electric high chair that was, believe it or not, plugged into the wall, I just had to see if it worked. I touched a metal ring inside the headpiece with one hand and a U-shaped contact at the left ankle with the other and winced, waiting for the zap. Thankfully nothing happened.
My friend Lindsey Delahanty curated the show–called “Are You Serious?”–with photographer Jason Lazarus. The press release says it was designed to “investigate artists who work within the discourse of the contemporary art world while circumventing stylistic trends in their work.” These “stylistic trends” include the neopsychedelic, fake hippie, seventh-grade stoner shit it seems like everyone’s doing these days.
Noelle Mason built the child-size model of Old Sparky, Florida’s retired electric chair, which was notorious for botching executions. (In two cases there were reports of flames shooting out of convicts’ heads.) She told me it was a comment on the Puritan idea that anyone, even a child, can be irredeemably evil, literally possessed by the devil. Behind the chair were two gigantic black-and-white paintings of the mug shots of Betty Lou Beets and Karla Faye Tucker, the last two women executed in Texas. “They’re the archetypes of feared women,” Mason told me. Beets was a “black widow” who killed her fourth and fifth husbands; Tucker used a pickax to kill a woman her best friend’s husband was sleeping with (meanwhile Tucker’s boyfriend killed the cheater). Mason painted them in an almost dreamy manner, which didn’t romanticize them so much as show their softness, a reminder that they were human beings.
Mason’s work resonated with me because it incorporated death, a pet obsession of mine. Other pieces in the show hit social issues too squarely on the head–a sculpture by Michelle Faust looked like the tread of a blown-out tire discarded on the shoulder of a highway; Columbia College prof Paul D’Amato showed a photo of a tired-
looking black woman on Lake Street. I guess this is what the gallery meant when it said in the PR materials that the show would include “sophisticated artworks that examine contemporary issues including: race, class environmental issues, consumption, the violence of environmental waste, depression, mortality, institutional control, gender roles, death, ritual, loss, grief, denial, mathematics nuclear technology and the cannon [sic] of art history.” Ho hum: that’s what the 90s were for.
My constant search for glamour and amusement has trained me to crave hooks and punch lines and themes I can relate to my own life. After all, if the artist gets to explore his ego, why can’t I, the viewer, do the same? But I’m sick of that too. I desperately want to look at something else, something that has nothing to do with me–but when I do I just can’t get into it. Which is the bane of being self-obsessed and inundated with information, which is to say the bane of living in modern America.
Donny Miller, a Los Angeles-based artist who wasn’t in the “Serious” show, made an art book about this very subject. Beautiful People With Beautiful Feelings coyly pairs simple, clip-arty drawings with poignant or zingy one-liners. At first the whole thing seems facile. “I’m getting so good at dealing with my insecurities” reads one page in a stripped-down sans serif font, an obviously gorgeous woman blocking all but her eyes with perfectly manicured hands. “Everyone’s holding my life hostage” says the page with a pink-haired woman wearing a mild expression of distress. The presentation is shallow and self-centered, which I can relate to, and which, therefore, I like. But the more I relate the sadder I get, because there are bigger, more important, and more interesting things to think about. And then complaining about this makes me feel like an asshole, considering how good I have it. And on and on, none of it about anything but poor little me.
Miller was in town a few weeks ago promoting his book and selling paintings at Heaven Gallery. Dressed in a dark gray suit with two tiny yellow roses on each lapel, hair slicked back into a ponytail, fingernails long and sharp and clean, he looked like a hustler or a magician. When I got there he was sitting behind a table set up with his book and an old-fashioned wooden palette with paints meticulously squeezed into the most perfect little turd piles. He was playing the suave part of Mr. Artist. His personal appearance combined with his work made the whole thing seem like a gross ironic joke.
I asked him if there was even a sliver of sincerity in his work. “What seems insincere about it?” he asked. I pointed to the painting of a man’s and a woman’s hand clasped together, the legend above reading: “People need people because of other people.” “C’mon,” I scoffed. “Look at that. It’s obviously a joke.” Miller silently raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
Then I wondered if I was the cynical one. What if the poor guy was just being sentimental? Thinking too much leads to the disintegration of faith.
The more I talked to Miller, the less sure I was of what either one of us was saying. He told me I smelled good, then pulled out a little vial of cologne and sprayed it all over himself, even on his crotch. “It’s Hermes,” he said, pronouncing it the French way. I asked his age and he told me 32, then he said he was kidding and that he was 24. Then he said no really, he was 32, seriously for real. I asked to see his ID and he indignantly pulled it from his pocket and showed me.
October 20, 1974. He was 31, soon to be 32. “Omigod!” I exclaimed. “We have the same birthday! Different year, though.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said. “Show me your ID.” I obliged. Turns out neither of us was lying.
When I looked at Beautiful People With Beautiful Problems at home, I noticed how the dumb images keep the uncomfortable messages at a comfortable distance. There’s irony, sure, but also humor and mercy in building a safety net for when sentences like “I’ll walk all over you, if you let me” and “I play games when I don’t know what I want” and “It only hurts if you care” hit too close to home. You can pretend you don’t take it seriously–and isn’t that something of a blessing?
Halfway through the book I was convinced of Miller’s genius. He points out the nihilism and passive-aggressive self-pity in human emotions and gets you to wallow in the worst aspects of being privileged but still having feelings too. And then you get to pop that bubble in the most detached, I-don’t-fucking-care manner: eventually you turn the page.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.